Why learn a dead language? A lot of people ask me this question thinking that Latin (and the Classics in general) is only useful if you want to become a teacher. While you are a lot more likely to be hired to teach Latin than Math, English or History, there are a number of useful benefits to studying classical languages and culture for a student looking for success in life outside of teaching. Even though Latin has been in deep hibernation for the past century, it is beginning to make a comeback across the U.S. and all the way to China and Australia with amazing results. Here are just a few reasons why everyone can benefit from having more Latin in their lives.
It raises test scores
Everyone wants to see themselves on a path to academic success, and Latin can help. Articles have been published for well over a hundred years on the academic benefits of Latin; recently, however, a number of studies collected by The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages are showing how it leads to higher test scores and academic achievement. Students who have taken Latin consistently score higher in verbal sections of the SAT and GRE than students who have taken other languages. The study of Latin has also been linked to higher Math skills and generally better student GPAs in college. The reason for better scores is because:
It improves comprehension and analytical ability
Students who have taken Latin often have an edge in college applications but have a huge advantage in applying to law school. According to Harvard Magazine, students who major in the Classics are at the top of the acceptance rate for law school because they have the highest LSAT and Undergraduate GPA’s. The reason is because students studying Latin and classical culture are taught how to break down and generate meaning from complex Latin grammar. If you can read and understand Cicero, there is no legal doublespeak which will be confusing. These mental gymnastics raise general comprehension levels in students which translate across all other subjects. Furthermore:
It makes you a better writer and speaker
If you have ever struggled to remember when to use “who” or “whom” or have had trouble remembering whether to say “I wish was” or “I wish I were,” then you can see two very practical uses for understanding the English grammar which learning Latin teaches you. Almost every SAT prep book or article on Latin will emphasize this, and PBS recently ran an article on its effects on young learners. Because classical Latin is an inflected and highly constructed language, it requires a deep understanding of constructions and form usages which are transferable to and which improve your own communication abilities. In addition, since about 60% of English words (and 90% over two syllables) contain Latin roots, studying Classics dramatically improves your ability to effectively use and understand words. This has the benefit of allowing you raise the register of your speech by using Latin rooted words without sounding forced or stiff. As a result, you sound more articulate, which is a major key to success in the professional world. But that is not all; because of this expanded vocabulary:
It makes learning other languages easier
To be more specific, Latin helps you learn Romance Languages because they were derived from Latin and therefore are, for a large part, mutually intelligible. For example, if you know the Latin word for door – porta – you will have little difficulty remembering the Italian (porta), French (porte), or Spanish (puerta) words for door. On a wider scale, Latin can help with languages in the much larger Indo-European language family. Take for example the English word father; in German it is vater, in Latin it is pater, in Greek it is pateras (pater in classical Greek), and pita in Hindi. The point is that Latin is the root of many modern languages and the cousin of many others; if you know Latin, you have the key to unlocking the rest. In the same way that it unlocks other languages:
It increases cultural literacy
Latin (and Greek) literature form the foundations of almost all of our modern fields of study. As a result, it constitutes a great deal of the cultural history we share. If you want to know where atomic theory, logic, philosophy, rhetoric, medicine, history, comedy, drama or poetry come from, turn to the Romans and Greeks. To see how relevant the classical world still is, look no further than the U.S. government. If you want to know why are US courthouses designed the way they are: why must someone be 35 years old to become President, and why America is called a Republic rather than just a Democracy, understanding the Romans explains it all. When U.S. Senator Ted Cruz quoted Cicero’s speech Against Cataline, classicists understood the impact and the discrepancy between the original speech and its modern application.
When it comes to culture, it is almost impossible to pick up any text from the 1800’s without being doused in the classical allusion. Even more closely tied to us today than the 1800’s, USA Today has argued how relevant Latin literature is to understanding current culture. Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games (to name just a few) all have a basis in Greek and Latin literature and written by authors who studied the Classics. On a deeper level, knowing the Classics gives you access to knowing the patterns in storytelling which unlock meaning- even when a story is not directly based off of myth. Star Wars, for example, and almost every epic story hold the same elements and so-called “Hero’s Journey” rooted in and established by classical literature. Therefore, reading the Latin epic The Aeneid by Virgil will make Star Trek more meaningful and will connect it to the continuum of other culturally relevant stories with the similar themes, from Gulliver’s Travels to The Divine Comedy. This ties into another strength you gain from reading Latin literature:
It teaches you be able to relate ideas and to other people more easily
Learning Latin goes beyond the language and teaches interdisciplinarity. By freeing your brain from the box of thinking that each language, school subject, and media genre exists in isolation, you are more easily able to connect ideas and relate to people with seemingly different ideas; in other words, Latin does not just teach a language, it teaches essential transferable skills. Learning can be defined as connecting new ideas to old ideas. By forcing your brain to make more neural connections, you are opening up new paths to form relations between things which might not otherwise seem connected (e.g. a 2000-year-old Latin poem and a 1960’s television show set in space). In the same way, studying classical literature connects us to our own shared humanity; reading a love poem by Catullus or a fart joke by Aristophanes connects through common experience despite the gulf of time and space. This ability to make connections through ideas and shared experience extends to making connections with people today.
The classical philosopher and father of logic (as a field of study), Aristotle, believed that most disagreements were created by people having different definitions for the same term. By being able to see past the surface differences in “stipulative definitions,” we are able to see other’s points of view and reconcile it with our own. Coupled with the strength of grammar and vocabulary which give you the ability to express yourself effectively, this capacity helps us relate to the people around us by giving us the tools to understand their point of view and connect to them in a manner which they best understand. In short, this makes you seem well-balanced, sympathetic, articulate, and relatable; it is the human dynamic which is one of the most important keys to a successful life. Do not just take my word for it, though. Forbes has run a series of articles on successful people who have studied the Classics. Even Mark Zuckerburg, the founder of Facebook, cites Latin as one of the keys to his success, but Latin is not only about social efficiency, we can never forget that one of its greatest strengths is that:
It is fun
Last but not least, there is a fun factor in Latin that is not always present in other language learning. While other classes are learning how to buy bread, Latin students learn about invading Gaul, slaying monsters, and nymphs turning into trees. Latin can be seen as the original fandom – with students learning a secret language which is far more useful than Klingon and much more engaging, relevant, and marvelous than any comic book universe.
In conclusion, Latin, and the field of Classics as a whole, might not be something that you devote your life to (unless you want to teach), but it can have amazing results in both bringing intellectual balance to you as a person and giving you the keys to success in other areas of life and study.
David is currently teaching Latin in Arlington, Massachusetts. He received his B.A. in Classics at Emory University and is currently pursuing his second Masters in Education at Tufts University. As a teacher, David believes in holistic education where learning is much more than memorization but fosters the growth of the student as a scholar, citizen, and human. He believes in the importance of structured instruction that is made more effective through generating meaningful interest in the topic.
Tag:ACT, Analytical Ability, Culture, Foreign Languages, French, German, GRE, Greek, Harry Potter, Hero's Journey, Hindi, Italian, Language, Language Tutoring, Latin, Literacy, Literature, Math, Poetry, Reading Comprehension, Romance Languages, SAT, Spanish, Speaking, Star Wars, Students, Success, Test Preparation, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, Writing